We continue our Group E team previews with an appraisal of Switzerland, who have qualified for their fourth consecutive World Cup finals.
Ranked sixth in the world, the Swiss are a force to be reckoned with and their squad is perhaps the strongest they have ever assembled.
New Arsenal signing Stephan Lichtsteiner and Stoke City’s Xherdan Shaqiri are two assets Fantasy managers may wish to consider.
Switzerland begin their World Cup campaign in Rostov on Sunday 17 June with a daunting fixture against Brazil. An encounter with Serbia in Kaliningrad follows five days later, before Vladimir Petkovic’s side round off their group itinerary against Costa Rica in Nizhny Novgorod on Wednesday 27 June.
Road to Qualification
Had Switzerland not made it to Russia, theirs would have been the most unfortunate hard-luck story in World Cup 2018 qualification.
Petkovic’s side won the first nine of their ten qualifying matches, before slipping up in the final fixture against Portugal to be denied an automatic qualification spot at the last.
A nervy 1-0 aggregate victory over Northern Ireland in the subsequent play-off round eventually saw the Swiss through to their 11th World Cup tournament, though they were indebted to a hugely controversial penalty award from referee Ovidiu Hategan in their first-leg win over Michael O’Neill’s team.
Switzerland’s qualifying campaign had got off to the best of starts, with recently coronated European champions Portugal – minus Cristiano Ronaldo – caught cold by two unanswered first-half goals in Basel.
A last-minute winner from Valentin Stocker condemned Hungary to a 3-2 defeat in Budapest, before the Swiss registered six straight home-and-away wins over group also-rans Andorra, Faroe Islands and Latvia.
A comprehensive 5-2 thrashing of Hungary in their penultimate fixture took Switzerland to the brink of qualification, before Portugal exacted a timely revenge in Lisbon (an Andre Silva strike and a Johan Djourou own goal sealing a 2-0 win for the Portuguese) to steal top spot on goal difference.
Switzerland’s total of 27 points was the most accumulated by any runner-up in the UEFA qualifying section and would have been enough to win five other groups.
Ricardo Rodriguez’s penalty in Belfast was enough to see off the Northern Irish after 180 minutes of otherwise goalless action in their two-legged play-off.
Petkovic’s team and set-up look very settled going into the opening group matches. The Bosnian coach favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation in qualification and in Switzerland’s subsequent friendlies, on occasion rolling out a 4-3-3 against weaker opposition.
Only two of Switzerland’s 23-man squad failed to feature in a qualifying match (third-choice goalkeeper Yvon Mvogo and recalled striker Mario Gavranovic), while 15 of their World Cup 2014 squad will be present again in Russia.
Most starts: Yann Sommer, Stephan Lichtsteiner, Fabian Schar, Granit Xhaka, Haris Seferovic (11), Xherdan Shaqiri (10), Ricardo Rodriguez, Blerim Dzemaili (9), Johan Djourou (7), Valon Behrami (5), Manuel Akanji, Steven Zuber (4)
Most goals: Haris Seferovic (4), Stephan Lichtsteiner, Ricardo Rodriguez (3), Granit Xhaka, Steven Zuber (2)
Most assists: Xherdan Shaqiri (6), Blerim Dzemaili, Haris Seferovic (3), Ricardo Rodriguez, Valon Behrami (2)
Forward Admir Mehmedi, who scored twice and supplied three assists in nine qualification starts, is Switzerland’s only major absentee through injury.
The Swiss have contested three international friendlies since their play-off victory over Northern Ireland, with 1-0 and 6-0 wins over Greece and Panama respectively backed up by a creditable 1-1 draw with Spain in Villarreal.
The Key Targets
Ricardo Rodriguez (£5.8m on Fantasy iTeam | £5.5m on McDonald’s FIFA) and Stephan Lichtsteiner (£5.7m on Fantasy iTeam | £5.5m on McDonald’s FIFA) offer Fantasy managers the prospect of attacking returns from the full-back positions.
The gallivanting Rodriguez popped up from left-back to tap in Switzerland’s equaliser in the 3 June friendly against Spain and scored on three occasions during qualification. Two of those strikes were spot-kicks and the AC Milan defender looks set to be his country’s designated penalty taker in Russia this summer.
The former Wolfsburg player has plenty of goal and assist potential from direct free-kicks and corners too, having created two of his side’s goals during qualification.
Rodriguez recorded clean sheets in six of his nine qualification starts, meanwhile.
Lichtsteiner also popped up with three goals during qualification, all of which were from inside the penalty area during open play – an indication of how gung-ho Arsenal’s recent capture can be from right-back.
The Swiss captain was the creator of Rodriguez’s goal in the 1-1 draw with Spain and recorded an assist during qualification, as well as eight clean sheets in 11 appearances.
Speaking of assists, Xherdan Shaqiri (£6.7m on Fantasy iTeam | £8.5m on McDonald’s FIFA) was the architect of six of Switzerland’s 23 qualifying goals.
Shaqiri is the leading goalscorer in this Swiss squad with 20 goals in 69 international appearances, but scored on only one occasion during qualification.
The Stoke playmaker has World Cup pedigree, of course, having scored a hat-trick in his country’s 3-0 win over Honduras in Brazil four years ago.
Shaqiri, who will likely line up wide right in Petkovic’s preferred 4-2-3-1, scored eight goals and supplied nine assists for the relegated Potters in the Premier League this season.
Haris Seferovic (£6.6m on Fantasy iTeam | £8.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) missed only one qualification fixture and top-scored for Switzerland with four goals, though he is far from prolific at club level: the Benfica striker hasn’t scored more than four league goals in his last three seasons.
Seferovic did contribute three assists during World Cup qualification, however, and got the nod as Switzerland’s sole forward in the 1-1 draw with Spain, suggesting he is still a nose ahead of Mario Gavranovic (£6.5m on Fantasy iTeam | £7.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) and Josip Drmic (£6.7m on Fantasy iTeam | £6.5m on McDonald’s FIFA) in the strikers’ pecking order.
The Long Shots
Outside of Shaqiri, no Swiss player supplied more assists (three) in qualification than Blerim Dzemaili (£6.1m on Fantasy iTeam | £7.0m on McDonald’s FIFA), who looks set to line up in the “number ten” role.
The veteran Bologna midfielder, who like Rodriguez is a threat from free-kicks and shares corner-taking duties, is the only Switzerland player to have started all three of his country’s friendlies since World Cup qualification was sealed.
Dzemaili scored in Switzerland’s wins over Panama and Greece in March.
Breel Embolo (£6.5m on Fantasy iTeam | £6.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) is one of the most exciting prospects in this Switzerland squad. The 21-year-old forward, who can play either up front or on the wing, has struggled at Schalke 04 since his £20m move from Basel in 2016, though a serious injury in his debut season with the German club can largely be blamed for that.
Though he started only three qualifying fixtures, Embolo scored in the 6-0 thrashing of Panama in March and showed glimpses of his former dynamic self in a 45-minute appearance against Spain.
Young defender Manuel Akanji (£5.5m on Fantasy iTeam | £4.5m on McDonald’s FIFA) is now a strong contender for a centre-back berth, with Johan Djourou’s (£5.5m on Fantasy iTeam | £5.0m on McDonald’s FIFA) place at considerable risk. The 22-year-old centre-half moved from Basel to Borussia Dortmund in January for £20m and would offer Fantasy managers the cheapest route into the Swiss defence.
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